In January 2020, when the year was still fresh, and COVID-19 had not brought the entire world to a stuttering halt, HBO quietly premiered Avenue 5. It’s brought to us by the brilliant mind of Armando Iannucci, best known for satires that show the worst of the human condition, such as VEEP, The Death of Stalin, and The Thick of It. With its first season in the bag, Avenue 5 is the best show of the new decade, yet remains largely unknown, an underrated gem in a vast sea of shows.
The series takes place in the year 2060 when space travel has become common enough that the setting for this futuristic screwball comedy is a luxury cruiseliner spaceship (the Avenue 5 of the title). The season’s main conflict happens within the first ten minutes of the premiere episode. A glitch in the ship’s anti-gravity equalizer causes a gravitational shift so powerful it knocks the ship off its original trajectory. A space cruise that was meant to be two months long will now take three years, and as the season progresses, we begin to see the unraveling of all onboard.
The ship is helmed by Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) in a role written specifically for him and one that caters to the full spectrum of his talent. On the outside, Captain Clark appears to be suave and collected, self-assured in what he’s doing. On the inside, he’s battling both chronic alcoholism and imposter syndrome, and the latter isn’t imagined as much as the actual truth. Clark is completely out of his depth, with no background in anything space-related whatsoever; he only became Avenue 5’s fearless leader after being mistaken for the savior of a fire that happened on Avenue 3. He’s a fraud in every way, shape, and form, going so far as to feign an American accent and wear a hairpiece, both of which are revealed in two of the biggest comedic moments of the season.
Complimenting Laurie’s Captain is a diverse, entertaining mix of players who’ve worked with Iannucci in his previous comedic endeavors alongside fresh faces in his ever-growing repertoire. The Captain’s right-hand man is not a man but a woman: Billie McEvoy (Lenora Crichlow) is the straight-man character amid the neverending space chaos. An engineer and a former NASA intern, she’s the only character who understands the inner workings of the ship and the only one capable of finding a solution when things go haywire. Billie is one of the characters who shows the progressiveness of the future. Women of color in STEM are rarely represented on screen; when they are, they’re portrayed as aggressive know-it-alls. That isn’t the case with Billie, whose awkwardness and obnoxious laugh make her one of Avenue 5‘s most relatable characters.
Herman Judd (Josh Gad) is the entrepreneur who owns Avenue 5 and the previous vessels in its line. As the owner, Judd is the man who chose to hire Clark as his captain without looking into his experience, as he himself has no actual credibility in this field. Herman is meant to remind viewers of Donald Trump, another man who took on endeavors far beyond his capability and proceeded to shift the responsibility to someone else. In Herman’s case, the recipient is Iris Kimura (Suzy Nakamura): Judd’s name is the one branded all over the ship – even on the acupuncture needles in the spa –but Iris is the one running Avenue 5‘s day-to-day functions from the hospitality management angle. She is headstrong and a complete girlboss, able to get everyone to do what she needs them to do by putting the fear of God into them. Iris is Judd’s keeper, the only one able to keep him under control and in his place. They’re both fully aware that Judd would be lost without Iris, making their dynamic interesting to watch.
Rounding out the leading players are an eccentric bunch of supporting characters who effortlessly play off the leads. Karen Kelly (Rebecca Front) is a stowaway passenger whose nosiness leads her to find out more than she should know. She is a textbook Karen with a signature haircut and an “I’d like to speak to your manager” attitude, but that’s not necessarily a disadvantage here. In reclaiming the name, she’s the only one able to see eye-to-eye with the upset passengers and the only one to whom they’re willing to listen, leading her to become the Head of Passenger Liaisons. The most interesting thing about Karen is that she’s the only one of Avenue 5‘s characters whose vocabulary is devoid of expletives, even in moments of overwhelming stress. Only Rebecca Front’s delivery could turn “Tony Macaroni” into a biting insult.
Matt Spencer (Zach Woods) is also in charge of passenger services and is the most nihilistic of the bunch. When confronted with the news that their journey has gone from two months to three years, he laughs it off, much to the chagrin of the other passengers. Matt’s nihilism leads him to be completely honest with everyone, telling things exactly as they are and sugarcoating nothing, making him the meanest of the bunch (as well as the youngest). Finally, we have Rav Mulcair (Nikki Amuka-Bird), another woman of color in STEM who monitors Avenue 5’s efficiency from Earth.
The season finale aired just as the US began to shut down due to COVID-19, and as the pandemic has progressed, the series has become more relatable – in some ways, even indicating what was to come. For example, Avenue 5 features a 30-second delay between space and Earth whenever there is a video conference. These delays are a constant annoyance, as they make short conversations longer than they need to be, with the characters forgetting to remember that there’s a delay and they have to wait before speaking. With many of us still working from home even now, two years into the pandemic, digital meetings have become the new norm for getting everyone in one place at the same time. Part of that new normal means coping with video delays caused by the spotty internet connection or by issues pertaining to the technology itself. It’s a common denominator in the workplace in reality and in the series.
Similarly, as the characters in charge of Avenue 5 are the least competent to have in charge during a crisis, the series reflects the grim reality many people in the US and the UK have had to come to terms with. Our leaders were unable to contain the spread of the virus, leading to a record number of cases and deaths and a rise in unemployment. At the same time, more competent officials in other countries were able to get things under control with far less loss of human life. The Avenue 5‘s leaders are incapable of running beyond the show’s inciting incident. Forgetting to empty the ship’s turd shield before it ruptured, sending tons of excrement into space, and being unable to figure out why the ship started beeping every two minutes, are just two examples of things that experienced leaders who understood the ship’s inner workings wouldn’t have let happen.
Avenue 5’s most glaring prediction of what would come in the real world is a matter of life or death. When a passenger claims the whole experience is a simulation, implying that the ship was never in space, several other passengers leave Avenue 5 through the airlock. Though they’re frozen solid by the subzero temperature of space, still more passengers follow them off the ship and into death. It’s a parallel we live with every day as we see people deny scientific facts and claim that COVID-19 is a hoax, asserting that their rights are being violated because they were asked to be a little more aware of the well-being of others. The plus side here? The science deniers on Avenue 5 will give you a good laugh.
The show’s characters are in a tough situation that will worsen before it gets better, much like the tumultuous two years we’ve all lived through. But the characters’ relatability and the absurdity of their situation allow viewers to have a good laugh, and the rest of the ensuing chaos more than balances out Avenue 5‘s parallels with the real world.
At its core, Avenue 5 is about trying to make it through the day when the world is falling apart around you. While the show’s characters may not be okay, it’s fun to watch them struggle, reminding us that we’re not alone in this.
Avenue 5 is set to return for its sophomore season later this year.